Monday, December 27, 2010

Getting in Shape

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As I mentioned before, over here in Micronesia I don’t do much except eat and sit. Between times of eating and sitting I usually lie down, eat some more and sit some more. My point is that I don’t do much physical activity. The reasons are two fold. The main reason is that it is ridiculously hot, so people do a lot of sitting in the shade. “The Dude” in the Big Lebowski has the title of the laziest man in Los Angeles County, which puts him up there for laziest worldwide. However, I believe that Micronesians are most likely the laziest people on earth. I think “the dude” would fit in just fine over here. I am not degrading Micronesians by pointing out their laziness; they happily admit to their indolence and actually take pride in their stubborn adherence to lassitude. Sometimes they can work with surprising vigor and enthusiasm to accomplish tasks of farming, fishing and food preparation. However, most of the time they prefer to sit or lie down during most of the hours of the day. I have come to accept this lifestyle and spend much of time sitting around in deep philosophical concentration or idle-minded stupor.
The other reason for the lack of sporting activity is the lack of space and resources to play games and sports. These small islands are dense with jungle and rise steeply from the shore to tall volcanic peaks. Flat dry land is hard to come by; the little portions that do exist are covered in houses or farms. There is no space for soccer fields, baseball diamonds or basketball courts. Fields and courts do exist in some places, but they are few and far between. The only two sports that people play over here are volleyball and basketball. Mainly volleyball. The youth loves black American culture and emulates it in dress, music and style; so naturally they are also attracted to basketball. They feel that it makes them gangster to play ball. Regardless of the reasons, I do appreciate that they like basketball over here. However, there a lack of courts so only a select few actually get to play. Volleyball on the other hand is much easier to organize. All you need is a small flat place with two palm trees to tie a net to. They are very good at volleyball and even the amateurs always seem to perform the standard “bump, set, spike”.
I do work out with stretchy bands and a single weight sometimes in my room, but only on some occasions. I do a decent amount of pushups and try to work in some situps, but not to the level that I maintained back in America during my rugby season. On another note, I was very disappointed upon my arrival in Micronesia to find they had no idea about what the sport of rugby was.
I was told that the main sport throughout the Pacific Islands was rugby. Fiji, Tonga and Somoa produce some of the best rugby players in the world. These large, strong, fast islanders are perfect for the quick moving, rugged game of rugby. Pursuing the hope that I would be assigned to one of these islands, I took up the sport of rugby in the year before I left. I had an amazing time learning this gruesome sport and found that I was rather good at it. I am very fast and love to tackle people. In actuality, it is probably better suited for me than football. My small stature is not as much of a disadvantage and the style of play utilizes my attitude of reckless abandon and utter disregard for my body.
To my chagrin, there is no rugby in Micronesia. As I explained, the landmasses are too small to support fields necessary for the sport. Also the population is segmented amongst thousands of islands, so it is difficult to get enough people together that are crazy enough to pound their unprotected heads together in a scrum. The third reason is that Micronesia has been controlled and colonized by America, not England or France. English and French play rugby, so they brought the sport along with them to their Pacific colonies. Americans play basketball and volleyball, so they brought those sports to Micronesia. The combination of the factors of small land, small population, and non-rugby loving colonizers led to the lack of rugby in Micronesia.
At my two training sites on Pohnpei and Tonoas, my house was situated in the very near vicinity of a basketball court. I could play anytime I wanted in my free time to satisfy my needs for competition and exercise. However on Fefan, the closest court is about 40 minutes away at the large church. I make my way down there sometimes, but it is a lengthy production to make it happen. I hope to maybe build a basketball here in my village of Ununno, but that will be a possible future endeavor after I complete the construction of the water tank. Luckily, I was presented with an opportunity to get more involved in basketball. I was invited to be part of a basketball league. I will be representing my mother’s home island of Parem, because our UFO team is already full. The games will officially start in the New Year and I am excited to ball up some Micronesians and show them how we do things around basketball courts in America.
My exercise repertoire was further enhanced by a chance event that took place a couple of weeks ago. I was relaxing down by the ocean and waiting for my family to return from Weno. The little kids were running races on the small grassy straightaway near the dock. Then a few older guys started getting involved. I was feeling rather lazy at the moment and wasn’t enthused to jump up and run with the group, so I just sat and relaxed. After a little while, one of the local boys challenged me to a race. Well, I am never one to turn down a challenge so I hopped up and sauntered over to the group of runners. We both took off and raced about 50 meters….zip, zam, zoom, I beat him by a landslide. Everyone was a little surprised and immediately another guy came up and challenged me. Once again, I left him in my dust. Then a third guy walked up to the starting line and demanded a race. He kept close on my coattails, but I still smoked him. Apparently, this third guy was the fastest man in the village. Everyone was amazed.
From that point on I have been bombarded with comments about my running abilities. I am expected to run in the Fefan Track & Field Games in January and lead my village to victory. I have begun to practice with the kids almost every day and work to get in better shape. Unfortunately, I strained by quad muscle and really haven’t been able to sprint since that first day of introduction races. However, I have now started jogging in the mornings to keep myself going. I know that I have always been fast and I enjoyed pretty good success as a sprinter in high school, but I am not sure that I can live up to the lofty expectations that my village has placed on me. They say that two other “Johns” have been the only island champions from Ununno in the past, so it seems natural that I will win all my races and add to the legend of John. I am excited about these upcoming races, but am a little bit anxious because I am in the worst shape of my life. All I do is eat, sleep, sit and eat. My pants don’t even fit any more. I honestly don’t button them anymore; I just use a belt to keep them up. I haven’t weighed myself since I’ve been here but I assume I am much fatter than at any point in my life. So, I might not showcase my peak performance at the track meet next month but at least I will be in a little better shape than now. I will keep you all updated with the results. 

Cheerful Chuukese Christmas Charm

This Christmas was the first time in my life that I was not in the company of my loving family in the comfort of a cheery home exquisitely decorated for the winter festivities. In fact, every member of my immediate family has been together for every single Christmas throughout our lives. This year, I broke the streak. I didn’t spend any time lying docilely by the fireplace sipping hot chocolate while I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I didn’t string my favorite ornaments on the brightly lit Christmas tree in the living room. I didn’t brave the crowds and go on a mad shopping rampage at the last moment to try to gather presents for all my loved ones. I didn’t eat prime rib or twice baked potatoes or any of the feasting delicacies that I have become accustomed to during the holiday season. I didn’t awake in the morning to find any presents from Santa Claus. I didn’t wear a Christmas sweater. (If I tried to wear a sweater, I would probably die from heat exhaustion.)
The lack of my beloved Christmas traditions and absence of family and friends definitely put a damper on the day; and for the first time I felt a little bit homesick. However, Chuukese Christmas still provided a wonderful day of fun and happiness. Some of the stores on Weno played Christmas carols in the days leading up to the big day and many of them were also decorated with fern leaf wreaths and sparkling lights. This provided a slice of the exciting consumerism that pervades the holiday season. This was also my first Christmas that had a strong religious significance. The birth of Christ isn’t exactly the central focus of my family’s Christmas at home, however things are a little more pious over here.
To get a taste of the American Christmas traditions, the volunteer community here in Chuuk gathered together for a holiday party on the 23rd.  In addition to Peace Corps volunteers, there are Jesuit Volunteers (JVI’s), Japanese volunteers and Australian volunteers. None of them live with host families like we do, and none of them integrate into the society to the level that we do; nonetheless they are also sacrificing a year or two away from home to educate the youngsters of Micronesia. The Jesuit volunteers have an apartment on the main island of Weno and invited us all over for a Christmas party. Only a couple of us Peace Corps volunteers could make it, but there was a substantial group of other various volunteers in attendance.
We built a gingerbread house. We ate candy canes. We listened to Christmas music.  They even had a Christmas tree. We decided to try our best to make a holiday feast. We got some instant mash potatoes, stuffing and a case of frozen chicken. We pooled our resources and pulled together a pretty decent meal to celebrate Christmas. We drank some wine and danced to Christmas carols throughout the night. It was really nice to celebrate with Americans and get to fulfill some of our Christmas desires.
I returned to Fefan on Christmas Eve and ate a normal meal of rice, taro and fish. Not exactly the usual spread that covers my dining room table back in the states. At about 9pm we gathered as a family and began to walk down to the main church (Mission), which is about 40 minutes away. We arrived in the neighboring town of Onongoch and came together with hundreds of other Fefanese. At 10pm we all started a giant procession up to the fabulous church building. We were lead by a series of 4 giant torches and the group sang Chuukese Christmas songs as we ambled towards the midnight mass. We came to the giant church on the hill that overlooks the beautiful ocean, and then funneled ourselves into the building. I actually sat outside because it was so crowded, but I rather enjoyed my view from the exterior. There was a radiant waning moon rising above the shimmering white bell towers of the Church that created a brilliant ambiance around the area. A special Christmas mass then ensued with an extra level of ostentatious rituals. Everyone kissed a plastic doll of baby Jesus on the forehead and listened attentively to the priest until well after midnight. Then early on the Christmas morning we gathered together again and began our long walk back home. I slunk into bed around 1am and dreamed of sugar plum fairies and candy cane castles.
The next morning I was awoken by shrieks of young voices. However, these weren’t cries of excitement at the gifts that Santa bestowed upon the small children in my house, but instead screams of random arguments that often transpire in the early hours of the morning between the little munchkins. We relaxed for a while and then took off on another walk to the Church for Christmas day mass. We were entertained again by a flurry of white clad priests performing holy tasks in honor of Jesus birthday party. It was very interesting to have a Christmas entirely focused on the birth of Christ. I mean, that really is the reason that we have Christmas. The Christmas season has come to symbolize so much more like love, family, happiness, presents, Santa Claus and a whole mess of doodads and whizzlenuts. I guess it was kind of nice to remember true purpose behind celebrating Christmas.
We very leisurely walked back to our village of Ununno and took a couple of hours to complete our journey. We stopped along the way to relax and take in the serene beauty that surrounded us. The pathway was crowded with churchgoers and we had many conversations with people along the way. We came back to our village and attended a meeting that was full of long-winded seemingly meaningless speeches that characterize all of the meetings here in Chuuk. After an hour or two of listening to formal discourses on the something about something, we ate a big meal and then everyone scattered back to their homes. My favorite part of the Christmas day was a present exchange that was organized by the church youth. All of the youngsters (including me) were assigned a partner and bought a little present for their Christmas buddy. We all came together and a couple people led a ceremony of handing out presents. To accept your present you were supposed to dance your way up to the stage as they played a little snipit of a song for you. Most people were lazy and just walked up to grab their gift. However, I knew that the little girl that was my partner particularly liked dancing. So when it was my turn I boogied my way up to the presents and then grabbed her hand and brought her up to dance with me. The crowd erupted in laughter and I had the feeling that it made her feel pretty special. I guess it was good that I performed this little gesture, because she got me a way better present than I got her, haha. There was supposedly a $5 limit so I just got her a Christmas ornament and some candy canes. She got me a brand new fancy Hawaiian shirt and a gigantic basket filled with fresh island vegetables.
I returned home and relaxed with the family for the rest of the night. I put on some Christmas music from my computer and the little kids danced in circles to the sound of jingling silver bells. I also gave out small presents to my family of flashlights, can openers and candy. It was a good ending to Christmas and I fell asleep a happy camper. I was very worried that I would be upset because of the lack of Christmas spirit and traditions that are so prevalent in America, however I happily accepted the Chuukese style of celebrating this wonderful holiday. Undoubtedly I would have rather spent my holiday in the presence of my family and friends back home, however part of my Peace Corps experience is to challenge my personal status quo and step outside my comfort zone.

Merry Christmas to everyone back home!!!!!!!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


My body has quickly made the adjustment to my different sleep schedule and my homeostatic levels have normalized into a regular pattern. In America, I could never fall asleep before midnight unless I was gravely ill. If I got into bed before midnight then I would just stay up and twiddle my thumbs until sleepiness finally came upon me. My normal sleep schedule was from sometime after midnight until 9 or 10ish in the morning. If I were somehow awoken before 9am then my entire day would be become worthless. I would be a sluggish blob of laziness and drag my feet through the daylight hours of the afternoon. I am fully aware that this was a very unique pattern that I developed based on my ridiculous college antics and job situation in the last 5 or 6 years. Nonetheless, these habits of late nights and late mornings were deeply engrained in my system.
When I arrived in Micronesia, I was greeted with the harsh reality of living by the sunlight. It gets dark around 6pm and the sunrises around 5am here in Chuuk every single day of the year, because we are nearly on the equator and there aren’t really seasons. When the sun goes down, it becomes very dark immediately. It is a curious phenomenon about life on the equator, the quickness that darkness descends when the sun drops below the horizon.  When dark comes, there aren’t street lights to cast a pale yellow glow throughout the village, and there is no electricity to brighten our houses and power the flicker of our televisions. My family usually lights a couple of kerosene lanterns and often run our gas-powered generator. We are fairly wealthy so we have the luxury of generator power, but most families just rely on flashlights and kerosene. However the generator only lasts for a few hours and gives us just enough electricity to power a few lights and sometimes charge the family’s 5 inch portable DVD player.
Basically the point that I am driving at is that due to the lack of lights, everybody goes to sleep when it gets dark. These days I usually go into my room between 8 and 9 to read and always fall asleep before 10. This makes sense because I am usually up at 6am. I know it is ridiculous to many of you that I am complaining about this. The majority of the people in America work 9-5 type jobs and adhere to a similar sleep schedule, but it is a horrific shock for me to adjust to this illogical system of waking up so early. I have adjusted and wake up rather easily in the morning, but it still defies what I think should be the standard of sleep in the world.
            Although none of you may pity me for my newly normalized schedule of rising early in the morn, I can assure you that my sleeping situation in Chuuk is far different from what most of you have ever experienced. I do have room of my own, which is rare for Micronesia where most people sleep communally in one large room. However, I do sleep on the ground. Well not entirely on the ground, I do have a straw mat that is approximately 7mm thick. Its kind of like sleeping on thatched cardboard. This was quite frustrating at first because I am side sleeper. Side sleeping is not conducive to sleeping on hard floor. My sore hips and shoulders can attest to that. Slowly I have adjusted to sleeping on my back, which I think is better for my lower back pain. I am trying to convince myself that sleeping on the floor is actually a blessing in disguise.
            I have a sheet, but I never use it. Even at night it is 187 degrees with 300% humidity, so covers are not necessary. However, this presents a problem. Sleeping without covers in just a pair of boxers leaves my body very exposed. The tropical regions of the world are infamous for supporting swarming hordes of tiny bloodsucking insects called mosquitoes. (“Nikun” in Chuukese, which I kind of think is a better name for them). Anyone who has ever been on a camping trip with me knows that I have especially sweet skin that is a delicacy to members of the mosquito family. They seem to flock towards me like the “salmon of Capistrano”. Luckily, because I have endured so many thousands of bites, now the sensation of itchiness is only fleeting for each bite. The bites only last for less than a day and usually only itch for about an hour. This is good because I receive about 10 or 20 bites everyday. My ankles and arms are constantly covered in little red bumps that I am trying to pass off as a fashion statement.
I have developed three good methods of dealing with these pests. The most obvious way is the use of deet infused bug spray to deter the bugs from latching onto my flesh and sucking the juices from my veins. At night I also employ the use of mosquito coils, which burn to produce a noxious smoke that is unpalatable to the insects. Those are methods of prevention; my solution to the completed attacks is hydrocortisone cream. I have enough tubes of anti-itch hydrocortisone cream to supply a small African village for a year. The quick application of this creamy white panacea and the avoidance of direct fingernail scratching ensure that the mosquito bites are impermanent and short-lived. Oh, I am also quite fortunate that Micronesia is one of the only tropical areas of the world that is entirely free of malaria. Which is very good for me because I would most assuredly have been infected due to the plethora of bites that I receive on a daily basis.
The rock hard ground, swarming mosquitoes, and stifling heat are only a few issues that plague my sleep. I wont even get into describing the spiders, rats, cockroaches and ants that make their home in my abode; because those don’t seem to bother me as much as you might expect. I also have a brother and brother-in-law that snore like boars. My brother has a gargoyle-sounding snore that resembles a vacuum cleaner with a Barbie doll head stuck in it. My brother-in-law’s snore is more animalistic and can be likened to an elephant playing a broken harmonic submerged in chunky mayonnaise. Together they make a cacophonous symphony that echoes through the walls of our small house. Sometimes they align their snoring cycles so that one’s inhale is simultaneous with the others exhale; this generates one continuous blaring snore. I also live with a 2-year-old baby who cries whenever the time strikes her right. (My sister is pregnant, so I also have another baby coming into my family sometime in January to add to the crying party.) The dogs outside erupt into ferocious barking at the drop of a leaf and can often be heard fighting and snarling in the distance. However, the one sound has been entirely novel to me here in Chuuk in the rooster crow. It is a foolish myth that roosters crow when the sun comes up. That is not true. They crow whenever they damn well feel like it. Sometimes at 4am, sometimes at 3 am, and every so often to they time it right at about 5:30 am when the sun actually comes into view over the ocean. The roosters crow in chains. I usually hear a “cock-a-doodle-dooooooo” off in the distance, and every rooster along the path repeats the crow until it reaches my house and then continues down the road. All it takes is one stupid rooster to ring his alarm at 4am and then the crowing will continue for hours in a continuous cycle until the sun is fully in view above the trees.
When I sat down to write this blog, I had no intention of describing my sleeping situation in such intricate detail. Rather I simply wanted to relay a short story from the other night.  I had fallen asleep around 9pm as usual and was sound asleep dreaming of pizza, football and bacon. Then at about 1 am I was awoken by pounding on my door, “John, John, wake up, wake up”. I sprung out of bed in surprise, thinking that we were being robbed by a monkey or a deadly typhoon was approaching. I quickly opened my door and was greeted by the smiling face of my brother. He simply said, “Eopus” and held up a bag of fish. I was brought into the kitchen and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes to surprisingly see half a dozen men in my kitchen eating voraciously. Grease was popping out the pan, dirty hands were scooping handfuls of rice, and bloody fish guts were lying in a bowl on the ground. Eopus is the Chuukese midnight meal. After a successful nighttime fishing expedition, the men bring back their fresh catch and feast upon their bounty in the wee hours of the morning. I was promptly given a 10 inch fish and a clump of rice. I tore the fish to pieces with my hands and devoured all the edible parts of the oceanic creature. I have become quite adept at extracting all the pieces of meat from a full fish and sucking each morsel of goodness from the bones and skin. I grubbed this fish heartily, wipe my hands off and crawled back into bed. This was my first “eopos”, but surely not my last. 

Feeesh & The Moon 12/10/10

My only regret so far has been the lack of fishing that I have done. I expected to be fishing all the time. I thought I would have nothing to do except lounge on the beach and stab fish with my knife while I sipped a mai tai. Well, there aren’t really any beaches on my island so that part of my fantasy is out of the picture. However, I was just enlightened to the paradoxical reasons behind the lack of beaches here on Fefan, which I will expound upon at another time. (Sidenote: As I am writing this, a soaking wet naked baby snuck up behind me and giggled as she stole my flashlight. I was lucky this time she wasn’t wielding a machete, which she often is)
I cannot control the condition of the beaches on my island, but the lack of fishing has been partly my fault. I have mentioned it numerous times to family and friends, but have not pushed it incessantly. Fishing over here is all about connections. You just have to know the right people at the right time. My main goal was to become a proficient spear-fisherman, but breaking the ice isn’t as easy as I expected. Spear fishing isn’t a constant activity as I expected and nobody has an extra spear to lend me. However, the main problem has been the “mechem”. Mechem is a series of large sticks that is placed around the reef as a funeral observance. When an important person dies, these sticks are planted around an area and it is proclaimed that there will be no fishing or swimming for an extended period of time. Well, some important guy who lives in Guam and hasn’t been here in years died a few weeks ago. As a result, we cannot enter the water for 3 months! No swimming, no fishing, no nothing. So needless to say, I haven’t gotten the chance to put on my snorkel and spear a fish through the head.
Since we cannot fish anywhere in the waters around the village, the alternative is to take the boat out and go to other places to fish. Fortunately, my family has a boat. It is the usual practice to fish at night. I have surmised that night fishing is popular for 3 reasons. Reason number 1: at night time the sun wont sizzle your skin like a burnt hot dog. Reason number 2: the fish like the dark. Reason number 3: there is nothing else to do at night.
As the full moon approached, my brother finally granted my request and organized a little fishing expedition for us that night. We took the underside of a large tuna and its intestines to use as bait. The fishing poles they use aren’t exactly fishing poles. In fact, they aren’t poles at all. The fishing line is just tied to piece of wood with notches in both ends. A small piece of metal is used as a sinker and the hooks are tied in the same style as in America. To cast the line, you swing the rope around like a lasso and let it fly. (To my chagrin, I was utterly terrible at this style of toss) To pull it in, you simply use your hands. The standard line is about 45 lb test, so it is thick enough that it doesn’t slice your hand as you try to pull in the fish.
We spent about 4 hours out on the boat fishing. I enjoyed the sport of it and caught a couple of decent sized fish, but I was more excited about the experience. We pulled our boat into the reflection of the moon on the water and anchored there to fish for a while. The full moon was like a lemon drop exploding with bright juices that splattered on the open ocean down below. It was an experience unlike anything I have felt before. The brightness of the moon was almost blinding and its rays formed a dazzling yellow brick road through the lagoon. The gigantic golden sphere shot a beam down to the water that started small in the distance but expanded to a river of flickering yellow ripples. I had never seen such an extensive reflection of the moon, and it was a breathtaking experience to be encapsulated in the expanding line of mustardy light that it exuded. Earth’s little satellite was putting on quite a show this night.
A couple weeks later, I got to go out another time on the boat to try a different type of fishing. This method is called bottom fishing. We used the same lines on the piece of small plywood, but this time we attached a 4 inch piece of rebar about a foot above the hook. We pulled away from the reefs and went into to the deeper parts of the lagoon away from the shoreline of the island. It was also necessary to bring a special anchor that would reach all the way to the bottom. We then plopped our chunks of rebar in the water and watched as they sunk quickly to the depths of the sea. When it hits the bottom, you stop the line there and await a bite. When you get a nibble, you must be sure to set the hook with force because you also have to yank the rebar off the seafloor before the hook will be engorged in the fishes mouth. This style of fishing takes slightly less skill than the other methods, but yields some of the biggest catch. Most of the fish are about 8-12 inches, but my brother caught one as big as an arm.
After both of these fishing excursions, we returned back to the house around 2am and feasted on fresh fish during Eopos. It is definitely a tradition that I can get used to. My brother asked if we have a name for the midnight meal in America, I thought for a second and then replied with a smirk, “we call it the munchies”. 

School (...kind of) 12/2/10

My official purpose while undertaking this daunting two-year task of living in a third world country is to teach English. People all over the world are yearning to learn the English language to give them job opportunities and the chance to move beyond their poverty-stricken lifestyle. In particular, Micronesians have a very strong bond with America and encourage English literacy with enthusiasm. Most of the people here have the goal of pursuing further education or jobs in Guam, Hawaii or the mainland. (Interesting side note: people in Guam have official US citizenship, so everybody over here just calls it America).
The school that I am assigned to has slightly over 100 students for grades K-8. My job is to teach English to the 5th through 8th graders. The main upside is that I only have about 10 or 15 kids in each class. Unfortunately, there are many more disadvantages that I am faced with. The school has two buildings. One is decrepit and crumbling to the ground as the tin rusts through and the wood rots. The other building is a two story concrete building. It has the potential to be a legitimate structure, buts it’s lacking a few things. The top floor is unusable because the floor is caving in. This floor could collapse at any moment and crush all of us down below, but we just pray that the day wont come anytime soon. There are no railings, no walls, and just a big empty space that has yet to be used since its construction. The bottom floor is a little bit better. There are windows with partial screens or plywood covering them up. Fortunately they let in enough natural light to let us see (because of course there is no electricity).
Some of the classes have a few metal chairs with desks attached, but most kids just sit in plastic chairs or wooden benches with no desk. Recently, my predecessor built \ bookshelfs for each room, so now we have a place to put things like books….but we don’t have many books. The books that we do have are American textbooks that are far beyond the language level of any of these students. Most students can’t even spell “cat” but they are learning about “endoplasmic reticulum’s” and “mitochondrial DNA”.  It makes absolutely no sense to any of them, but they memorize the phrases and definitions and can mindlessly regurgitate them. Even the teachers don’t understand what they are teaching.
There are no reading, writing, or grammar books. And my job is to teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the English language. This presents a unique set of challenges. Fortunately, I am awesome and can handle it. Haha. I have developed a system where I will not need books to teach. I will be basing everything that I do off of a series of themes. Every two weeks I will have a new theme; such as the “forest” or “ocean” or “home”. I will give the kids vocabulary words that relate to the subject matter and use those as the basis of my lessons. I will develop dialogues for them to practice, I will write stories about the theme, and I will come up with activities that integrate writing and grammar.
This may sound like a lot of work, but I think it might be easier than it sounds. The English language ability level of these students is incredibly low and the extent of activities that they can handle is rather simple. I can come up with 10 fill-in the blank sentences for the kids to do, and it will take me about 30 minutes to do that activity. Everything that I teach ends up taking a lot longer than in any American classroom. For example, I made up a story the other day and read it with my kids. The story was only 8 sentences but it took two days to read it and analyze it. I think I am creative enough to come up with activities that will fill the time for each grade level. The biggest challenge will be preparing things for the huge variation in skill level. The differences between 5th and 8th graders are huge and the individual differences within classes are even starker. It will be very hard to accommodate all levels.
The students are just as intelligent as American students, however they are extremely limited by their remedial English language skills. Students in Chuuk are supposed to be taught everything in English from 3rd grade through high school. But Chuuk has one of the worst school systems on the planet, so this is not a reality. Teachers do not teach in English. Most teachers don’t even come to school. And when they do, most don’t give a shit. I am not saying that they are no good teachers in Chuuk, there are just few and far between. The students have not been given a fair chance to be at the level that is expected of them. I was surprised to see the low level of comprehension when I taught in Pohnpei, but Chuuk is far below even Pohnpeian students.
I am supposed to teach in entirely English, but this is very difficult because most of the kids don’t understand English. The 7th and 8th graders can comprehend most of what I am saying, but the 5th graders have absolutely no idea. They have an amazing ability to memorize and repeat words and dialogues, but they aren’t actually learning any of it. It will be my task to change the style of learning that they have been doing their entire lives. I am not going to teach them in the “teacher centered” rote-learning environment that they are accustomed to. Instead, I will utilize all of my tools to get them interactively involved in the classroom. They say that many volunteers who have teaching experience in America are actually at a disadvantage, because teaching in Micronesia has no resemblance to US classrooms. Nothing that works in the US works in Micronesia. None of the strategies can actually be used; and organized systems and structure are nonexistent. Those American experienced teachers have to learn to throw everything out the window and start from square one. So I guess its ok that I am starting from square one.
Behavior in the classroom is out of control. In my observations during finals week, I witnessed students standing on their chairs and throwing test papers at each other. I saw students get up and smack others in the back of the head. I saw multiple students stand up and walk outside to go spit or snot rocket. When Ben would ask a student to do something they would simply say no, then he would yell yes and they would yell no and he would yell yes and they would yell no. It was utter mayhem. The students basically did whatever they wanted. I also heard many stories about fights in class, teachers punching students, and every kind of disrespect that you can imagine.
 I decided immediately that it wasn’t gonna be like that in my class. So on my first day, I laid down the law and scared the shit out of the kids with my booming voice and confident presence. I implemented a punishment/reward system that motivates students through positive reinforcement rather than punishment. I instilled some of the ideas that I have learned in psychology that will hopefully manipulate the young minds of my students. To my pleasant surprise, and to the amazement of all the other teachers, my first weeks of teaching have been flawless. Not a single kid spoke out of turn, not a single kid got out of their seat, not a single kid did anything wrong. In just my first week, I have already turned these little devils into model students. But we will see how long that lasts.
Another big problem with the educational system in Chuuk is the overall attitude towards school. Some people care about school and learning, but most don’t. Most parents don’t, which means that most kids don’t. Kids miss school whenever they feel like it. And teachers miss school whenever they feel like it. Attendance at school is purely optional and is only mildly encouraged.
Let me give some examples of the rigorous schedule that they follow in Chuukese schools. I arrived in UFO during finals week. Finals week consisted of two hours of testing on just Monday and Tuesday. Finals were simply an informal mishmash of extremely simple activities. School was then cancelled on Wednesday because the teachers wanted time to grade the finals. School was cancelled on Thursday because the teachers wanted time to do their report cards. School was cancelled on Friday because the teachers wanted to have a meeting. The following Monday, school was cancelled because we had a PTA meeting. School was cancelled on Tuesday because we had a teacher lunch. School was cancelled on Thursday and Friday for the thanksgiving holiday. (Even though nobody in Chuuk has any idea of what Thanksgiving is). And school was cancelled on Wednesday, because we couldn’t just have school on Wednesday. So in summation, my first two weeks of teaching consisted of two half days of testing and lot of cancelled classes for worthless reasons. Welcome to Chuuk.
There are some upsides to the crappy resources and school system that I have to deal with. The best thing is that I can pretty much do whatever I want. I have free reign to teach these kids anything I want in any way that I want. I don’t have to follow a book, I don’t have follow directions, I don’t have to follow anything. It’s just going to be my mind and these kids. Scary huh.